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Interrogating Literature (Egg Theater’s “THE PILLOWMAN” – a review)

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The play opens in an interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian setting. Katurian Katurian, a writer, is being interrogated by two detectives, Tupolski and Ariel. Next door, Katurian’s mentally disabled brother Michal waits. The detectives want to know why Katurian’s stories feature gruesome plots about child murder and torture, and in particular, why they seem to mirror a string of recent child murders in the area.

Egg Theater Company’s Filipino adaptation of Martin McDonagh’s THE PILLOWMAN is as creepy and as distrubing as its original. It delves on the moral-psychological arguments of developing and creating man and his literature. In it are characters that are as disturbed as its milieu and as jaded as its themes. Along the path of its brutal plot lie the thin lines between truth and tales, of reality and myths and the consequences that could come after. McDonagh’s material is arguably dark, sick, yet ultimately redeeming. And though we rarely see this kind of genre in our local theater, Egg Theater Company succeeds in bringing something gruesomely refreshing and ultimately unique.

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Paolo O’ Hara as Michal and Gabs Santos as Katurian in Egg Theater Company’s THE PILLOWMAN

Director-Translator George de Jesus III adapts McDonagh’s horror-comedy and turns it into a crisp and in-your-face retelling. The translation is rather unique, making you forget for a while that it was a translated work. See, de Jesus sensitively adapts to the native tongue, even considering its awkward linguistic nuances and Filipinisms. Consider Ariel and Tupoloski’s description of a traumatic childhood when they repeatedly say “problem childhood,” instead of “childhood problems,” “childhood traumas” or just “traumas.” These minute details make this adaptation quite unique, thus making it essentially true to form. Also, setting Katurian’s interrogation room in a squared limited space offers an ultra-realistic feel of the events that will unfold. As Katurian re-tells his stories, Joee Mejias’ animated projections paint the white walls of the Pineapple Lab, and it screams with a spectral narrative and visual magnificence, which we rarely see in Philippine Theater. This technique, somewhat makes the experience more mysterious, penetrating and visually bizarre.

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Renante Bustamante as Tupolski in Egg Theater Company’s THE PILLOWMAN

Gabs Santos is Katurian K. Katurian (yes, that’s his character name). Here, Santos delivers a rather satisfying depiction of a man in question, making one doubt his innocence. See, Katurian is a writer of stories, however dark and grim, he tells these stories to his brother Michal. As the story unfolds, we realize that these stories served as motivations to a string of murders in the town, and Katurian’s blameless intents become grimmer. Paolo O’ Hara plays Katurian’s older brother Michal (played alternately by Paul Jake Paule). As he portrays a lonesome adult retard, O’ Hara seems to be at his best when he’s most jolly and gullible. Acey Aguilar as the detective Ariel is strikingly dashing, yet could be brutally violent to watch. In the story, Ariel transforms so wonderfully as McDonagh’s subplots unfold, and Aguilar explicitly depicts these developments. Finally, it is Renante Bustamante as the nonchalant and unenthusiastic  Napoloski who’s such a fun to watch; not because he’s the “good cop,” but because Bustamante wonderfully delivers a cadence of calm, yet frightening authority. In Napolski, the audience get a glimpse of a silently raging totalitarian system outside the interrogation room.

What I like most about THE PILLOWMAN is its unconventional narrative. It does not tell a straight story, rather it builds on the stories within its own big plot. This literary technique somewhat makes McDonagh’s material richer and deeper. As Katurian narrates his stories to the detectives and to Michal, we don’t just get a satisfyingly-gruesome glimpse of the murders, but also Katurian’s own dark and cynical past. As McDonagh strategizes his plants and payoffs, we get a firmer grip of Katurian’s motivations, (while holding the edge of our seats).

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Acey Aguilar as Ariel, Gabs Santos as Katurian and Renante Bustamante as Tupolski in Egg Theater Company’s THE PILLOWMAN

Further, THE PILLOWMAN argues a moral-philosophical question on the role of the writer in the big world or reading and reacting. In an era of Social Media which brings an overflow of uncensored written works, should a disgraceful act from a reader be blamed on the writer?  As Katurian lovingly writes his dark tales, he innocently influences his brother to commit the series of crimes, thus making him an unlikely suspect. Here, McDonagh sets a revolutionary tone that we see in the works of George Orwell, where the artist (or the writer, for that matter) in a totalitarian system could never be safe.

Seeing something like this on stage reminds me that we are in a season of political campaigns where two runners have histories of dictatorial and totalitarian rule. Like in one Katurian’s stories — The Pillowman, watching this show could make us see what we’ll become if we miss to vote wisely. And if only we’d dig a little deeper, we’ll see how we can get rid of these misfortunes with the power that we have in our ballots for now.

I’m really glad to have seen this. I salute Egg Theater Company and The Pineapple Lab for the bravery to stage such a material for the Philippine stage, thus bringing a rare theatrical experience. This is something that we need to watch.

Promise, maganda siya! Nakakatakot. Nakakakilabot. Pero maganda talaga.

AFTERNOTE: Egg Theater Company’s THE PILLOWMAN will have a run tonight, Sunday at The Pineapple Lab in Makati City. Their run resumes on April 22, 23 and 24 with only one show/day at 8:00pm. For ticket inquiries, you call or text 09178440520, or you can visit their Facebook page by clicking here. 

Thank you, Ms. Trixie Dauz for these wonderful, spine-chilling photos. 

Orly S. Agawin

The author Orly S. Agawin

Orly has been writing for The Jellicle Blog since 2008. He is a training and development consultant by day and an art enthusiast by night. He lives in Parañaque with his mom.

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